The Role of Management Consulting

The hearings on the Galleon insider trading case have begun. Two of the accused Anil Kumar (turned witness) and Rajat Gupta are former McKinsey consultants. So naturally, there is light being shone on McKinsey and management consulting.

John Gapper in the FT

The calculation every client makes is, in the words of Christopher McKenna, a professor at the Oxford university’s Saïd Business School who studies professional services firms, that “consultants will carry information in and information out. The client has to decide which of those flows is worth more.”

Indeed, one of the main reasons companies hire consultants is to make sure they do not fall behind what their competitors are doing – in return for parting with their own secrets, they gain access to their rivals’ suitably disguised “best practices”. The consultant is a broker who attempts to amass so much knowledge that each company has to hire him, no matter how uncomfortable that feels.

The value in hiring management consultants lies in broadly three (overlapping) areas:

  1. Superior analytics skills – Firms like McKinsey do hire some of the best business brains.
  2. Expertise – industry or functional expertise.
  3. Best practices

The third – best practices – does overlap with expertise, but differs in a crucial way. Expertise could be acquired either because you were a part of industry or because you have been a consultant to that industry (or function like Marketing or HR) for many years. But best practice is just about knowing what the best companies are doing.

Hiring consultants to get industry best practices analytical skills is quite common. There was a time when smart MBAs were concentrated in management consultancies and were hired by companies just looking for smart analytical types to fix problems that their own managers were not able to.

But hiring MBAs became commoner in the industry as business schools kept churning them out. This redressed the IQ balance somewhat. Which forced management consulting firms to shift more towards hiring people from the industry (acquiring expertise) and to offering best practices.

In many cases, hiring a management consultant for best practices is perfectly alright. In functional areas like HR for instance. Although, hiring somebody with the expertise as an employee might be better.

But if you hire a McKinsey for core business strategy you have to be pretty convinced that your executive row has the wrong people. Even then, if you were the CEO, wouldn’t you make changes to your exec team rather than seek outside help?

Outside of management consulting I see no dilemma. In IT consulting for instance, there is a certain complementarity in the expertise that the IT consultant brings. Assuming that IT is not core to the company (i.e. you are not amazon.com) there is every reason for the company to tap the technology expertise with a consultant.

Management consulting is the only kind of consulting where most of what they do is not complementary to what the client’s leadership is doing. It makes up for their deficiencies.

The companies who therefore use them for core stuff have admitted to themselves that a) their exec team cannot rise to challenge and b) in the inflow-outflow that Chris McKenna speaks of above, they will definitely gain from the inflow more than they can lose from the outflow of information.

You know who’s never used consultants? Warren Buffett.